• Jeremy Dann

A Mariner's guide to effective communication on the VHF

Let’s face it, talking on the radio can be a bit of an awkward task. Nobody wants to sound like a novice for everyone in the immediate area to listen in on. The important thing to remember is that your goal is to be clear and effective when you are communicating over the radio. Being vague leaves room for assumption, which can lead to an accident.

Let's start out with general operation of your VHF.

Tuning the radio

Power on


Turn the squelch down until you hear static, then turn it up slowly until the static stops. If you turn the squelch all the way down without hearing static, check that your volume is up. Squelch essentially filters what transmissions you are able to receive based on strength. Having your squelch set to just above the static noise will allow you to pick up weaker transmissions from farther away. If your squelch is turned up high you will most likely only receive stronger, closer transmissions.


I usually adjust the volume based on how loud the static is from the squelch. Once satisfied with the volume I then adjust the squelch to eliminate the static.

Time for a radio check

It is important to perform a radio check prior to leaving the dock to ensure that you can both transmit and receive, clearly. It is also important to not do this on channel 16. If you belong to a marina use their house channel to do a radio check. Another option is to use SeaTows Automated radio check channel, which varies depending on your location. Channel 16 is used for hailing and distress only. When someone keys their mic for a radio check on ch 16, it could potentially block out someone else who is trying to make a distress call.

Things to consider before keying that mic

Power (1w or 25w)

The power level of your transmission will affect the strength of your transmission. On your typical VHF radio, there are two levels, High 25w, and low 1w. Both 1w and 25w transmissions will travel the same distance, however the 25w transmission will overpower any other transmissions in the area, which can cover several miles. Certain channels/frequencies are pre-programmed to one or the other. An example of this is channel 16. Used for distress messages it is pre-programmed to transmit at 25w to increase the chances of your distress call being heard. Channel 13, on the other hand, is designated as a ship to ship communication channel (line of sight) so this channel is programmed to transmit at 1w. That all being said you can still change the power setting on pre-programmed channels by pressing the H/L or (1w/25w) button.

Be Considerate

Another reason why the power setting is so important is that many people; including commercial operators, forget to change it from 25w to 1w, clogging up channels with chatter for miles when they only needed to talk to someone a few hundred feet away. For commercial operators on the receiving end of this situation, it can be quite hazardous. When tugs dock and sail barges, the captain needs to communicate with his crew on deck who give him distances to the dock or any obstructions that the captain cannot see. They are in some cases docking and sailing nearly blind, with only the guidance of the deck crew giving distances over the radio. As you can imagine it can make an already stressful situation even worse when the captain of a tug moving an oil barge is waiting for distances from his crew, and all of a sudden a sailing regatta miles away starts clogging up the channel because they are broadcasting on 25w. The moral of the story is that if you are looking to communicate with someone over VHF and they are within sight, make sure your radio is on 1w.

Don't step on people

This is a term we use when someone has talked over you on the radio. It goes along with checking to see you are transmitting on 1w, but try to avoid keying the mic over another transmission. Also if it sounds like something important is happening on the channel consider switching to another to avoid someone else having an accident.

How to hold the mic

I know it sounds ridiculous but the next time you take a look at your radio, see if you can identify where the microphone actually is. Many people mistake the big round part for the mic, this, however, is the speaker. The mic only has a small tiny hole that can easily be covered up by one of your fingers when you are trying to talk.

When talking be sure to keep the mic a few inches away, if you talk into it close to your mouth, it can sound muffled and distorted.

Contacting other vessels

When is it appropriate? – When in doubt, give a shout!

(if this is what you see, you should've called sooner :/ )

If the vessel name is unknown

Being descriptive is the key to effective communication.

The initial call should include description of other vessel:

Calling the:

Vessel type

Direction of travel

Location – landmark is preferable for inland or near coastal

This is:

Type of vessel

Position relative to them: off your starboard bow, include approximate distance if possible.

Example: “calling the eastbound trawler off Eatons neck, this is the sailing vessel Martingale off your starboard bow, over.”

You may need to do this a few times getting more and more descriptive if they don’t answer. If you have radar, try to determine how far away from a landmark they are to help differentiate between multiple boats.

Hailing someone on channel 16 is probably your best bet, just be sure to switch channels once you have established communication. Simply pick a channel and tell them to switch to continue the conversation, "so and so, please switch and answer channel 69."

What you don’t want to do

I have been on a tugboat in New York Harbor, and have heard people call on the radio “calling the tugboat off my starboard bow this is “whoever”. Now, there are probably around 100 tugboats in New York Harbor any given day. During the summer there are also pleasure boaters everywhere. So right off the bat, this person hasn’t accomplished a thing.

Just remember, when you are trying to get someone's attention, the initial call needs to be all about them (self-centered, I know). You need to get their attention in a way that gets them out of that wind in their hair, listening to Jimmy Buffet tunes, trance they might be in.

There seems to be too much focus on proper by the book vocabulary: over and out, roger, copy that, and not enough given to the actual message.

Your initial call should be detailed enough that someone who is listening in, with nothing but a chart should be able to pinpoint the target's location and direction of travel, and your general relative location and direction of travel.

I hope this guide is helpful to you all. If you have any questions please reach out to me

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